In order to be the best, you have to compete against the best.
The best teams can thrive under pressure. And thrive when it is super close.
Can’t break steel.
Bev Plocki has been giving her team of 14 gymnasts these nuggets of wisdom all season, and for the thirty years she’s been Michigan’s women’s gymnastics coach.
But this year is something different. This group of gymnasts is different. This season has been so different. So the nuggets of wisdom, naturally, mean something different.
The Wolverines have been through hell and back. Riddled with coaching scandals, injuries, and some less-than-stellar scores throughout the past few months, they have been in the spotlight and a topic of conversation throughout the gymnastics world.
However, as of late, Michigan has been making waves for all the right reasons. After tying for second place at the Missouri Quad Meet on Feb. 15, a meet they were highly favored to win, the Wolverines bounced back to convincingly win the Big Ten Championship. And then, riding the momentum of their conference title, marginally beat a talented Alabama team to qualify for the National Championship.
And this was no easy feat.
The NCAA changed the format of nationals at the beginning of the season, consequently allowing four less teams to advance to the championship round. There is an initial duel meet to determine the last team in to compete at regionals, and then there are two sessions of four teams competing on the first day. The top two teams from each of those sessions advance to compete in the regional final the following day, and the top two teams from the regional competition advance to nationals.
Michigan, ranked seventh in the country, is now one of the eight teams that performed at the caliber that allowed them to advance from their regional competitions to compete on the biggest stage. The Wolverines are ready. And they know it.
“I think the biggest thing for us is going to be believing that we belong,” said junior captain Lexi Funk. “Because, you know, it was a big deal for us to get to nationals, especially because they changed the format and there’s less teams that get to go. But there’s no reason that we don’t belong at nationals. There’s no reason that we can’t qualify to the final day. There’s no reason we can’t win.”
Though the 2018-2019 season isn’t over yet, Michigan has already outperformed its previous season. The Wolverines had a solid record, then won the Big Ten Championship, but failed to qualify for nationals.
So, as a team that thrives in the face of adversity and missteps, they made sure that wouldn’t happen again and — in this team’s fashion — have found the silver lining in the dark clouds from the past.
“Since we didn’t make it to nationals last year, we’re already a step ahead of where we were last year,” said Funk. “So I think I just want to go into nationals giving nothing but 110 percent and just enjoying all of the experiences that come along with it. … We’ve had such a good team chemistry this year and this is our last meet all together, so I think just enjoying each other’s company and just ending it with a bang. That’s all we can ask to do.”
Along with a stacked roster of accomplished athletes that continue to impress with every next competition, Michigan has one outstanding quality that has given it the ability to outshine the ups and downs of the season: its chemistry.
“It makes all the difference having that kind of a team dynamic,” Funk said. “… When you’re competing, you’re up on that event all by yourself. And I look around on floor while I’m dancing and I see my team doing my choreography with me on the sidelines. It’s comforting to see that my teammates are having fun with me and they want me to do well so that we can all do well together. And I think you can see the great dynamic that we have in the meets — we obviously say that, but I think you can see that in our actions … it’s indescribable.”
Added junior Maddy Osman: “This year, especially, with everything we’ve been through, it’s just brought us even closer — as friends, as family. … I know I have them behind me, I have them supporting me, and no matter what happens they’re gonna be there for me at the end of the day.”
Looking ahead to nationals, the Wolverines know they have their work cut out for them.
They are competing against the top-ranked teams in the country, namely UCLA, Utah, and LSU, some boasting Olympic gymnasts. UCLA placed ahead of Michigan at regionals by almost an entire point, and Utah already beat the Wolverines in the regular season. On top of that, Michigan’s senior captain and consistently strong competitor, Emma McLean, suffered an injury during practice on Tuesday and has been ruled out for nationals. The stakes are high and the competition is fierce, to say the absolute least.
But Michigan, remembering those nuggets of wisdom, is ready to attack it with the same mentality and enthusiasm that has helped the 14 gymnasts conquer everything else so eloquently.
“We’ve been through a lot this year, and we’re not really afraid to hide that,” said sophomore Lauren Farley. “I think it’s just made us so strong together. Just knowing that everyone kinda sees us at our highs of our highs when we’re celebrating and when we’re together and when we’re competing, but we have been through the lows of the lows together.
“And that’s what makes us unbreakable.”